The world-class catfish action that continues to make the Santee Cooper lakes famous also continues to reward fishermen with full coolers of tasty fish, even during the dog days of summer.
Lake Moultrie and its neighbor, Lake Marion, are blessed with a tremendous amount of habitat for catfish, both deep and shallow, with living and relic structure covering their bottoms - accommodating several world-class fisheries.
W.B. Whaley continues to hold the world record for a 58-pound channel catfish he landed at Santee Cooper back in 1964, and many fishermen believe that the world records for blue catfish and flathead catfish - currently residing in North Carolina and Kansas, respectively - will eventually belong to Santee Cooper.
All three species of catfish are right at home in Lake Moultrie's 60,000 surface acres, with huge blues, monstrous flatheads and stout channel cats having endless
opportunities to feed and reproduce throughout their expansive playground, with little stopping these beasts from growing to record size.
When the Santee and Cooper rivers were dammed more than 50 years ago, an angler's mecca was born, and it changed the way people fish for catfish. Fishermen at Santee Cooper essentially invented the "drift" - recognized as the best technique for consistently catching big catfish on Lake Moultrie during the summer.
Kevin Davis, who owns and guides out of Black's Camp on Lake Moultrie, has many years under his belt perfecting the drift, and it is his most-productive technique for targeting summertime cats.
"Catfish scatter throughout the lake during the dog days of summer, and covering a lot of water is critical to find any concentration of fish," said Davis (843-753-2231).
Drifting with rods around the perimeter of his boat presents a loafing catfish every opportunity to eat. Davis makes slow drifts across familiar areas with better than a dozen rods and baits dredging the lake bottom.
Catfish have an open ticket to hunt for blueback herring and other forage fish throughout the lake, but certain areas will be void of catfish in the middle of the summer. Frequently, fishermen head for those deepest holes where the water temperature is the lowest, but those are places that Davis avoids.
"Catfish will not be there!" he said. "Deep holes don't hold fish in summer. Many anglers seek deep holes to take advantage of the cool water, but these areas lack significant dissolved oxygen at those depths in summer."
Dissolved oxygen will usually be very low below the summer thermocline in depths greater than 25 to 35 feet. Davis prefers relatively-shallow humps and points adjacent to creek channels and close to deeper water.
"Humps at 15 to 20 feet of water are ideal for finding catfish in summer," he said, explaining that those areas generally will be oxygenated and relatively cool, attracting baitfish, catfish, and often a striped bass as a bonus. Baitfish will typically pack into groups and will suspend over deep water until pushed up onto nearby shallow humps by predators.
Davis drifts along humps in several commonly-recognized locales throughout Lake Moultrie, such as: Pinopolis Point, out in front of the West Bank, each side of Bradwell (or Braswell) Slough, west of Bonneau, and humps in the middle of the lake adjacent to the channel markers. Its a run-and-gun tactic, pulling baits across different areas until one produces.
"Always pay close attention to where your bites are and mark these locations using a GPS or deploy a marker buoy to return for a second and third drift," David said. "Catfish will not be in huge schools, but they do like company, and several fish can be caught off a single hump."
Humps that are littered with logs, stumps or other kinds of cover are preferred over clean humps. Stumps give baitfish places to hide, and the baitfish attract catfish.
While catfish will move closer to the surface to feed, the lake bottom is their chief patrol area. A slow drift is mandatory to keep baits bouncing along the bottom within the strike zone.
Clearly, the wind is the greatest factor in the speed of the drift, and a controlled drift is ideal. Clayton Crawford of Crawford Fishing Tours trolls or utilized controlled drifts exclusively for catfish.
"We use drift socks and often backstroking when necessary to control our drift," said Crawford (843-209-3086), who operates out of Black's Camp.
Crawford's "backstroking" technique is nothing more complicated than engaging his outboard motor at low speeds to move the boat and cover ground when wind is not strong enough to propel the boat. Drifting and motor-assisted drifting always are in reverse to prevent lines from being tangled in the outboard's propeller, hence the term "backstroking".
"It seems like you either have too much wind or not enough," Crawford said.
A drift sock is a small, nylon parachute tied to a cleat on the boat's bow and suspended in the water. It is tailored to slow the boat down in heavy wind and more importantly, align the boat along a path that will keep lines from tangling. A pair of drift socks are essential gear for Davis and Crawford during the summer.
Not only does drift speed assist the angler in catching fish, over the years, Crawford has noticed that drift speed is correlated with the size of the fish he catches.
"Small catfish seem to prefer a faster drift, and the monster cats hit during slow drifts," he said.
While his theory holds up most of the time, different drift speeds may be the determining factor between getting strikes and watching the rods pass over rich territory without the first nibble. He will change his drift speed frequently to figure out how fast fish want their baits passing by each day.
Lake Moultrie's rough bottom holds tons of catfish but will also grab plenty of hooks, so Santee Cooper fishermen have developed a rig known as the "Santee rig." It consists of a heavy-duty, black barrel swivel tied to the running line and to a 2- to 3-foot leader. A 3-inch cork is threaded on the leader halfway between the swivel and a 5/0 Gamakatsu circle hook that's the business end of the rig. The cork keeps the bait a foot or so above the bottom, within reach of catfish but often out of the reach of bottom snags.
The unique part of the Santee rig is the slinky or snake weight that keeps the rig from hanging on stumps and other underwater obstructions. The weight is a black shoestring filled with ¾ ounces of No. 4 buckshot, with each end crimped to secure lead inside. It is threaded on the running line just above the barrel swivel, attached by a weaker snap swivel that will allow the weight to detach if hung on a stump. While some of these rigs end up as "stump jewelry," break-offs are greatly reduced.
Catfish will eat almost anything swimming, slithering, crawling or lying completely motionless on the lake bottom. Insects, earthworms, sunfish, freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, stinkbaits, gizzard shad, golden shiners, and their favorite, blueback herring, make up the menu for a Lake Moultrie catfish. Luckily, just about ever tackle shop and fish camp around the lake keeps a well-stocked supply of herring swimming in aerated bait tanks or frozen in the ice chest.
Catfish guides, including Crawford and Davis, use blueback herring almost exclusively, but they will use gizzard shad or other fresh baitfish when herring are unavailable. While some fishermen hook baitfish in the head, Crawford and Davis thread the herring on the hook starting at the head and feeding the hook through the fish, exiting and implanting the hook at the tail. This method, developed through years of trial-and-error, usually results in fewer missed strikes and more catfish filets back at camp.